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Cars and Culture: Models for the masses

Tata Motors' micro car can't handle India's poor road conditions without increasing its production costs. Experts predict the project will soon die.

Published August 31, 2012

It has been four-and-a-half years since Tata Motors unveiled its Nano, billed as the world’s cheapest car at a price of about $2,500 (U.S.)

The fanfare was loud. Tata Chairman Ratan Tata proclaimed, “We are happy to present the People’s Car to India and we hope it brings the joy, pride and utility of owning a car to many families who need personal mobility.”

Car fancier extraordinaire Jay Leno announced that he had bought a Nano for his collection.

“To me, it’s not necessarily the car, it’s what the car represents,” he stated. He had visited the factory with a film crew and witnessed “the pride and the excitement” of its workers. You take “people who didn’t have a job, you give them a job in the factory, you pay them a good wage and you make a successful society.”

Car historians have heard all this before — the promise of a car that will dramatically expand the market, a car available to the masses, a car that will create a better world.

Henry Ford set the pattern with his Model T. “I will build a motor car for the great multitude,” he proclaimed in a biblical tone. “It will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

The theme of inexpensive cars improving society also made an early appearance. In the 1930s, French automaker Citroen promised a People’s Car, a lightweight, low-cost vehicle to be launched in 1940. The outbreak of the Second World War delayed its production.

The Citroen, however, had a rosy future. The famous Deux Chevaux, first manufactured in secrecy during the Nazi occupation of France, remained in production until 1990.

So how is India’s version of the People’s Car going?

“Nano has been a disaster,” says Joseph D’Cruz, a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto. “They have encountered tremendous problems in production and they haven’t been able to sell many vehicles.

“They have had to make many design compromises to get the price down. The car doesn’t do well on Indian roads, for example. Indian roads are terrible and the car is not robust enough to work well on them.”

The Nano design philosophy has been to follow the example of other People’s Cars and build something simple, light and strong — using three lug nuts on the wheels instead of four, for example.

The brilliant engineers who designed the Model T and the Citroen 2CV (Deux Chevaux) also employed this strategy.

“The most beautiful things in the world are those from which all excess weight has been eliminated,” Ford proclaimed, a prime example being the Model T engine and its one-piece cylinder block and detachable cylinder head.

It was much lighter, smaller and cheaper to manufacture than the typical engine of its time, a mechanism with individual cylinders bolted to a crank case. At the same time, the Model T engine was sufficiently powerful to deal with the rough American roads of its era.

The Citroen team weighed every component, wondering if it could be pared down or eliminated. At one point, glass windows were replaced with much cheaper mica. The company’s resident engineering genius, Andre Lefebvre, however, was remarkable for his grasp of aerodynamic efficiency and that grasp resulted in the superior suspension and steering mechanisms that gave the car its excellent road handling and cornering ability.

As it turned out, there was no need for Citroen 2CV to go mica. The car’s glass windows were reinstalled. But it seems unlikely that the Nano will be saved by a brilliant stroke of design. “My impression is that it’s going to go out of business in the next year,” D’Cruz says.

If so, it will be an object lesson that low price alone does not make for a successful People’s Car. In Nano’s case, many factors play a part in the car’s appeal, or lack of appeal.

Tim Richardson, who teaches international business at University of Toronto and Seneca College, points out that if Indian drivers want more than scooters — which have advantages over cars on crowded streets — they are likely to aim for a more mid-sized car. “India is very class conscious,” he suggests.

Marketing problems can be overcome. These types of cars also became the butt of jokes, with their limitations as a source of humour.

Entire booklets of Model T jokes circulated: “What did the chicken say after being run over by a Model T? ‘Cheep, cheep, cheep.’ ”

Although Deux Chevaux does not have the lore of the Model T on this continent, its aficionados do share jokes about how ugly it is, or tell stories about “zipping” along in it while chatting with pedestrians.

If we start to hear Nano jokes, maybe the fortunes of the car will improve. Or it may be that the era of the People’s Car has passed.

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